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Wow, I Just Noticed Something

September 25, 2009

Writing a comment on The Melcher System, and getting a copy of Larry Towell’s book made me come to a realization…

There seems to be a real lack of straight documentary work being done. What I mean by straight documentary work is Larry Towell’s work on the Mennonites. I think Paul is right in the assessment that so much of what we see from the photojournalism world is death and dying. I think this work wins awards, gets printed, etc, and is a very exotic lifestyle.

But man, have you seen the Mennonite work? It’s not like this work is new, it’s not, but it is simply incredible, and the perfect representation of straight documentary work. It would seem like this work, which is not only beautiful, but historical and anthropological, would be running all the time.

But, this work takes TIME, years perhaps, to complete, and I just don’t think young photographers want to devote that kind of time to getting their work out. Everything about our lives now is about fast, the quick, the now, the instant, and none of this helps when you are working on long-term projects.

I’ve never met Mr. Towell, so I have no idea how he did this work, how long it took, but I can’t imagine him posting images everyday and creating online galleries every week. It appears to me like this work took a long time to produce, and might not have been seen until things were complete. Every minute you spend on your phone, on your laptop, editing, creating presentations, is a minute you are NOT spending with the people you are photographing.

Perhaps documentary work, and photojournalism are drifting further apart? What I see today is a profound change in what is considered documentary work. Fading away is the Mennonite style work, and slamming in is the medium to large format color portrait series, or urban landscape series(void of people) as documentary work. This work has been widely embraced by the art world and is also widely embraced by the young photography crowd and is now considered documentary.

A color portrait series can be made in very short order, a few days, sometimes less, so a person can create an entire body of work in no time at all. This fits perfectly with the timeline of modern documentary. Who has the time to connect with people? Get it, get out and start selling the work.

An example you ask?

Sure, I did a series a year or so ago titled, “The Thoughts of Strangers,” where I looked for people I had never met, asked them to photograph them and also asked them what they were thinking about the second before I approached.

48 hours. I was done. An entire body of work in two days. Now for me, this was more of an exercise than a project I wanted to try to sell. But I tell you what, based on what I see in the documentary/photojournalism/art world of today, I bet I could sell it. I think it would be far easier to sell than my straight projects, which typically take several years to produce, and might not contain a flashy concept or ideal.

I also printed these portraits along with their corresponding contact sheet, which in itself was somewhat interesting. Low and behold, the actual photographs became less important in a way. Now, if I printed these six feet tall…I’m on my way.

When I see work like the Mennonites, I am literally frozen. I told you I was freaked out when I got this book. I react this way because I know what it takes to get images like this. I’m not saying I get those images, maybe one every few years, but I do know what it takes. It isn’t something that can be learned overnight, and has nothing to do with speed. This work is about a level of connection and trust that takes a long time.

This work is also black and white and reflects real moments, which in the industry, or art world, etc, just isn’t what is hot. Hot now is staged, controlled and massive in size. I think this, like all things, will change rapidly, but for the young photographer it has to be difficult to not chase the market.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2009 9:33 pm


    Just printed out your last two blog posts. If those blog posts were alive and kickin’ they would be standing tall, maybe in Roman drab, head raised high in pursuit of lofty ideals.

    Every once in awhile someone writes something that speaks directly to you. Your blog posts did just that. As a photographer still green and in pursuit of whatever that next hip assignment might be, its good to be reminded of the longevity factor. That important work takes time and may not immediately appear oh-so-glam. Reminded me that in the photo world I would like to produce literature, not just supermarket check out books.

    Stay the course, people are listening…

    • September 27, 2009 3:44 pm

      Geez, talk about inspiring. Not only do you drive a turbo, but you can write and shoot. I like that analogy, literature. I think you are on to something. I think food is also a good analogy. I read somewhere that Americans eat fast food twenty times per month, which just can’t be right. It can’t be. But, it might explain something.
      Not to say it’s all bad, but when someone eats fast food there are typically so many other factors involved that the actual food becomes secondary. Sound familiar? Like some shoots I’ve had……actually, gonna write this up. Thanks JS.

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